Review by Sasha Singer-Wilson
Breath is at the center of Huff. In the face of devastation, can we find the courage to breathe? We first meet Wind, the lovable antihero, with a bag duct taped around his head, in the midst of a hotel suicide attempt. Each breath he takes is a struggle, and in watching, I am aware of my breath, holding it one moment, and breathing a deep sigh of relief the next. This happens throughout the 70-minute one-man tour de force, the audience reflecting or balancing the breath patterns, the life force, of Wind.
Huff is vital theatre. It’s messy and wrenching, daring the audience to go to almost unbearable places. It begs us to see what we’d rather turn away from, making us laugh one moment and sucker punching us in the gut the next. Cree writer and performer Cliff Cardinal, son of beloved Canadian film and television actor Tantoo Cardinal and a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, originally developed the play at Native Earth’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival. Huff is the recipient of the 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation and is in the middle of a cross-country tour with stops coming up in North York, Quebec City, Montreal, Manitowaning, Kelowna and Victoria.
The story centres on Wind and his younger brother Huff, struggling to cope after their mother’s suicide. Caught in a cycle of solvent abuse, incest, neglect, violence, and a reserve education system that is failing them, Wind and Huff bring mischievous charm and unsettling normalcy to their horror-filled lives. Cardinal shape shifts into the people and elements that comprise Wind’s life and how he’s ended up where he is. He plays a dozen characters ranging from Wind’s loving grandmother, to the unpredictable Trickster, to the goofy family dog. A vibrant and likeable performer, Cardinal deftly switches from character to character with barely a breath in between.
Skilled director/dramaturge Karin Randoja does an excellent job with this imaginatively structured play, continually keeping the audience rooted in a unified world despite the dexterous changes from scene to scene. Cardinal and Randoja don’t shy away from the brutality that’s inherent to this story, but just when we feel it might be too much to bear they toss in a moment of levity, with a comedic talking skunk or an entertaining video game that comes to life. The immersive moments of the play, (for example, when a woman in the first row uses her teeth to remove the duct tape from around Wind’s wrists), playfully invites the audience into the fold of the story, entreating us to be brave and not keep it at arm’s length.
Jackie Chau’s set and costumes marry the mythological and harsh realism of Wind’s existence, reflecting both the elements of magical realism and stark authenticity. Michelle Ramsay’s haunting lighting design evoke the visceral locations—from the abandoned motel where Wind and Huff find refuge to the dingy basement in their father’s house.
Breath sustains us all—no matter where we’re from, who our parents are, or what we’re coping with. Breath connects us to our natural world—animals breathe, the forests breathe, our oceans breathe. When the lights fade at the end of Huff, an audible slow release of breath can be heard moving through the audience. We take a moment before we raise our hands in applause, Wind’s story heavy in the air, thick in our lungs. It stays with me, asking for my attention and for my empathy, through the day following the performance, challenging my facility to write. When I am finally able to do so, I start simply with this:
Please see Huff. Bring a trusted friend, an open heart, and Kleenex.
Huff is on at the Firehall Arts Centre until February 6th. For tickets and more information, please visit firehallartscentre.ca.
Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre artist and writer. She makes theatrical things with immersive theatre company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.